Sports Illustrated's failures.


By now, you've probably either read or read about the five-part Sports Illustrated investigation into the Oklahoma State football program the magazine published last week. It's been interesting to see the reaction to the series unfold over the past week. Anecdotally, it feels like people aren't so much talking about the allegations or revelations in the series but about the series itself. And I think that speaks to the larger point, and to one of Sports Illustrated's major failings here.

On a more tactical level, I wonder about SI's decision to publish one story a day, instead of the entire series at once. I'm sure there were reasons for this (digital page views, keep SI's name in headlines for a week, drop new "bombs" every day instead of all at once), but it seems like it backfired on them. It gave players time to claim they were misquoted, or their quotes were taken out of context. It allowed other sites to point out holes and flaws in SI's reporting. It built up the hype for the series so high that nothing could live up to it.

More to the point, the magazine failed to ask, and answer, the most important questions.

Why Oklahoma State? Why now?

In my news writing class, we just finished a unit on nut graphs, background and context in news stories. The point is to supply context to the reader, to take the facts laid out in the story and connect them to the larger issues or the ongoing narrative. If the lede tells you what is happening or has happened, the nut graph explains "OK, here's a reminder of why this is important."

Sports Illustrated didn't do that here*. It never sufficiently answered the question of why it was investigating Oklhoma State and why now. It sort of hinted that it the series was a look at how a program emerged as a national power, but there is no connection made, no correlation or causality between the allegations listed and the Cowboys rise to prominence.

(In fairness, Monday's story about the fallout does do this, to an extent: Perhaps most alarming: the disregard the program showed for players once their services were no longer deemed necessary. Too often the discourse about corruption in college sports revolves around the players' ill-gotten gains -- cash handouts, no-show jobs, free sneakers or tattoos. Lost in the discussion: the pain suffered by many of those same players, who leave school feeling hurt, used and abandoned Often, the names of the discarded will ring familiar only to a team's most ardent supporters -- who really remembers Artrell Woods? -- and that is the point. Says a former assistant under Mike Gundy, the Cowboys' coach since 2005, "They're basically being used. Once they're no longer of any use, they're gone."

Although, it should be noted that the first four parts of the series were about the ill-gotten gains that SI is now saying are really irrelevant.)

I wrote about this the day the series began, but it was never answered: Is Oklahoma State an outlier, a rogue program? Is the program indicative of what it takes to be successful in college football? Failure to answer those questions - or even adequately address or raise them - was one of Sports Illustrated's biggest failings.

The other, for me, was failing to see the forest for the trees.

The series read in a lot of ways like Raw Recruits, like any of the groundbreaking investigative journalism into college sports from the 1970s and 1980s. It felt almost dated in a way. It seemed like magazine felt the allegations of paying players, fixing grades, using sex to  lure recruits* and drug use were so tawdry, that they were shocking.

They aren't. Not anymore.

(The reaction to the sex story - "Duh, people have sex in college? - was predictable. And it angered me. I'll admit, my worldview changed the day my daughter was born, but there's a bigger issue here. The issue is that that kind of behavior, the existence of Orange Pride and similar organizations, perpetuates this culture where women are objects and prizes to be awarded to men who do well in sports. It's not that college kids are having sex. It's that women are have sex in service of men's sports (even tacit service). It perpetuates a culture that lectures women on how to avoid being raped instead of telling men "don't rape women.) It seems like people kind of feel like this is status quo in college sports, like this happens at every program (or at least a lot of them).

I think as a sporting culture, we should be ready to move beyond the nuts and bolts and look at the bigger issue. Sports Illustrated had a chance to do that, and went for the "shocking" headlines.

What this series could have been was a bigger-picture look at college sports and our sporting culture in 2013. The story about players getting cash could have been a deep dive into the underground economy in college sports, and the growing movement against amateurism. The story about grades could have looked at big-time sports' place in higher education. The story about drugs could have been an examination about the always contentious debate about drugs in society. The story about sex could have looked at sports' ongoing role in the objectification of women and what feminists call "rape culture." The series did none of that. It focused so much on the "scandal" of the precise allegations that it overlooked the larger cultural issues that need to be discussed..

Imagine a series in which one of the leading sports journalism outlets in the country looked at college sports through a cultural lens? Where instead of supposedly shocking revelations, we got to the larger issues facing sports and sporting culture?

That would have been a series worth talking about.